Category Archives: frugality

Just-Cash June 2013

Here's a guy who's never going to get robbed at the ATM

Oh, hey.

This is a short post to let y’all know that I’m doing Just-Cash June again this year. Join me if you feel motivated to try out a different way of spending. So far I’ve used nothing but cash in the first week of June.

The rules can be found here: https://foundryintheforest.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/just-cash-june/

One thing to add is that if you already use cash as your primary form of spending, try doing just Plastic this month. The goal isn’t cash in-and-of itself, but to stir the pot and give something new a try.

I’ll let you know how it goes throughout the month. So far, the most annoying thing has been entering cash spending in Mint. I use their app on my phone so I can do it from anywhere but it’s still a pain.

Your Credit Score

trivial pursuitWhen she read that I was talking about buying or building a house, Foundry reader Ethel mailed me and asked if she could write a guest post about an important elephant in the room when making a large purchase: your credit score. Ramit Sethi from I Will Teach You To Be Rich points out that a bad credit score will cost you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of even a modest mortgage.

Take it away, Ethel…

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Why it’s Frugal to Build a Better Credit Score

A good credit score can make it easier to secure loans and get better interest rates, but what many don’t realize is that a bad credit score can hit your wallet in ways you are not aware of. Besides having to pay higher interest rates on loans and mortgages, a poor credit rating can cause denial of employment, higher insurance premiums, or paying a higher security deposit when renting a house or apartment. Cell phone companies may even require those with a low credit score to pay a security deposit of as much as four or five hundred dollars before they can open an account.

What is a Good Credit Score?

Most credit reporting agencies use what is known as the FICO (Fair Isaac Corporation) model or a version of it to calculate your credit score. Various factors such as your bill payment history, the types of credit you have, the length of your credit history, and recent borrowings are considered in its calculation. A “good” credit score, according to Experian, one of the major credit reporting bureaus in America, depends on the system used by your lender. Most credit scores fall in the range of 600 – 750, and the average score for the United States is around 720. Generally they say, a score of 700 or above suggests that you manage credit well.

How to Improve Your Credit Score

There are several steps you can take to improve your credit score if it’s on the low side. One of the most effective methods is to pay off any outstanding bills and continue to pay them on time in the future. Your history of paying bills makes up 35% of your credit score, so making timely payments can raise it quite quickly.

Another effective way to raise your credit score is through the responsible use of a credit card. If you charge only small amounts which you can pay off in full every month, your credit score will gradually rise. If you aren’t able to pay the full balance, maintaining one of less than 30% of your card’s limit is also effective. For instance, if you have a $1,000 limit on your credit card, make sure you keep the balance at around $300 or below. [ed: NEVER use a credit card if you can’t pay the balance in full each and every month.]

If you don’t qualify for a standard credit card, you can get a secured credit card. You simply deposit an amount of money with your bank, and they will issue you a card with a limit equal to the amount you deposit. You must follow the same practices as with a normal credit card, keeping your balance at below 30% of your limit, or paying it off in full every month when you can in order to increase your credit score.

Raising your credit score is really not that hard. It does require a focused plan and a bit of discipline, but it is well worth the effort it takes. Paying your bills and making loan payments on time can save you from costly penalties or late fees. For those seeking a mortgage, a healthy credit score can save you tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the loan. Why pay more of a security deposit than you need to? A little effort can go a long way, not only towards raising your credit score, but to raising the balance of your bank account as well.

Ethel Wilson is a financial and credit specialist with 12 years experience in the banking, credit scores, and financial industry.  She has advised countless clients on how to improve their credit score rating.  She now shares the best of her credit score rating information as a contributor and editor of creditscoreresource.com

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Thanks, Ethel! One thing I’d add is to check all 3 credit scores yearly. The official website for checking your scores is annualcreditreport.com. Do NOT use the websites that you see advertised, even if they say “free” they are for-pay services. You can also get your credit score checked for free by 3rd party sites like creditkarma.com. They “guess” your score so it isn’t 100% accurate, but it’s close enough to monitor if you’ve been the victim of identity theft, between your yearly official credit check-ups.

The Anti-Accumulation Holiday [Guest Sermon]

not my synagogue Each week, my Rabbi gives a moving and informative sermon. They’re always top-notch, but this week’s was also very topical for Foundry in the Forest. I asked him if he’d be willing to let me turn it into a guest post, and he was kind enough to oblige.

The holiday of Passover is coming up next week, so Jews around the world are doing spring cleaning: literally, to get rid of the bread crumbs in the cupboards, and also metaphorically to try to rid ourselves of the excess in our lives.

The sermon is long but I encourage you to read the whole thing, regardless of your faith, as the message is universal.

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The Anti-Accumulation Holiday
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum

I have made it known over the years that the most valuable lessons I have learned in life come from television. But, today, I’m not going to limit my comments to TV. I’m going to start with a television show. But, then, I’m also going to talk about an insight into the Exodus story I learned from a Muslim friend, and how it’s connected to the show.

First the show. There is a show on HBO called “Enlightened” starring Laura Dern as Amy. In one of the episodes, there is a five minute encounter between Amy’s mother, Helen, and Helen’s old friend Carol, played by Barbara Billingsley.

Helen and Carol used to be good friends. They were both married to successful husbands, and they ran in the same circles. They run into each other in the store, after not having seen each other for several years. At first, they are delighted to see each other, and they start to catch up on each other’s lives.

Carol tells Helen about her daughter who is married and has two beautiful little children. She pulls out her iPhone to show Helen the photos. Then Carol asks Helen about her children. Well, Helen has one daughter, who has a child, but she hasn’t spoken to this daughter in years.

Her other daughter, Amy has just gotten divorced from Levi. They used to be the envy of everyone in high school—the energetic, beautiful blonde that all the boys wanted to date, and the handsome, star athlete. But, things haven’t worked out for them. And, now Amy has been demoted from her job and is living with her mother, trying to figure things out.

When Helen tells Carol about her children, Carol makes a feeble attempt at sympathy, but change of facial expression and tone of voice reflect a sense of superiority laced with contempt. “You know,” she says to Helen, “my daughter was always jealous of Amy in high school. Everyone wanted to be Amy. She had it all.” And, it was clear that Carol believed she had won the race. She had children, she had grandchildren who were flourishing. And, the former prom queen had nothing. And, she was happy about it.

The whole conversation lasted no more than five minutes, but it was brilliantly done. Because it showed how a simple exchange between two women who were supposedly friends and interested in each other’s welfare, was really about an intense jockeying for power and position. No one pulled out a gun, no voice was raised even a notch. But, this was war. It wasn’t enough for Carol that she had so much to be grateful for in her life. She had to derive additional satisfaction from the fact that her friend Helen had less than she did, and so she had won.

What causes human beings to behave this way? Here I would like to turn to a story we spoke about a few weeks ago, but which I saw differently because of a discussion we had in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group this week. We were studying the story of the manna. After our people left Egyptian slavery, and we were traveling in the desert, we were anxious about not having enough food. So, God gave us a guaranteed food supply for forty years. But, God only gave us one day’s supply of manna at a time.

And, there were rules. We were not allowed to save any manna for the next day. We were to take only as much as we needed and no more. And, the Torah tells us that no matter how much we gathered, every one of us had just enough, but no surplus. So, clearly, many of us tried to grab as much as we could, but to no avail.

Many of us tried to save the manna for the next day, but it spoiled. We were only allowed to save the manna once. That was on Friday, when God gave us a double portion, so we wouldn’t have to gather on Shabbat. But, that didn’t prevent the Jewish people from going out the next day and looking for more.

Why did God choose this particular method of feeding the Jewish people at the moment we had been released from slavery? What would have been wrong with allowing us to save up some of the manna, and relieve us of the anxiety that we wouldn’t have enough for tomorrow?

When we were studying this story in our Muslim-Jewish dialogue group, one of the Muslims, David Suissa, remembered that in the Joseph story, there was an opposite scenario. Joseph was the ultimate saver of food. He presided over the saving of food in Egypt during the years of plenty so that when the famine hit, there would be enough to feed everyone.

That sounds so sensible. But, what actually happened? Joseph controlled the entire food supply for Egypt. He rationed out food as he saw fit. Initially, people bought the food. When they ran out of money, they sold their land to the government in exchange for food. When they ran out of land, they sold themselves to Pharoah in exchange for food. Now Pharoah controlled all the land in Egypt and he had a huge slave force.

When we look at life as a zero-sum battle for scarce resources, the result will be slavery. In our fear that we will not have enough, we will want to grab as much as we can. We will horde, we will try to corner the market. And, the result of that kind of unbridled competition is always going to be that a small number of people are going to control a disproportionate share of the resources, and a huge population is going to have little or nothing. The resource could be land, money, oil, water, and even things like friendship, or sexual partners.

The Torah traces human oppression to the propensity of every human being to take more than we need. It’s why the Torah says of the king, ‘The king was not to accumulate too much gold, too many horses, and too many women.’ Because if the criterion of a successful life is having more and more and more—if the more we have, the better we are, that’s a recipe for gross inequality and mass human misery.

When the Jewish people left Egypt, the goal was to create an egalitarian society, How do you do it? You attack the source of inequality—our human tendency to want more than we need. If God had allowed the Jewish people to collect as much manna as they could, there would have been a fierce competition, with the Jewish people stepping on each other to grab as much as possible.

The result would be that a small number of people would control the majority of the food supply. They could sell it at any price they wanted. And, now, once again, you have a slave society. By forbidding the Jewish people from even saving for one day, God was reversing what went wrong in the Joseph story, where hording led to slavery.

And, the way we celebrate Passover is a reflection of this philosophy. In the month before Pesach, it’s a liability to save. You’ll end up throwing things out.

Passover is the anti-accumulation holiday. To get ready for the holiday of freedom, we have to un-save, we have to un-accumulate. We have to get rid of all the extra stuff that we don’t need. It’s a way to rid us of the insecurity that leads us to horde and take as much as we can. Because it’s this compulsion to take more than we need that leads us to be blind to what others need.

It’s no accident that the most popular song at the Seder is Dayenu, which means “We have enough.” To create a truly just society, it is essential that each of us master the ability to take what we need, and no more. Passover challenges us to ask ourselves: what do we really need to be happy and fulfilled?

And, not just in regard to material resources. There are many ways to play the hunger games. We can hunger for attention. We can hunger for applause. We can look at life as a bank account in which we have to continually pile up credits to our name. In our mussar class in the Fall, Ann Trail called them merit badges. The more badges we have, the more worthwhile we are. When that hunger to accumulate becomes obsessive, even in the most polite society, we can end up taking joy in our neighbor’s unhappiness.

Passover encourages us to live more simply, to live more modestly, not only in our physical needs, but in our emotional needs, too: to take for ourselves enough attention, enough praise, enough appreciation, but not more.

Passover encourages us to sing Dayenu, not only at the Seder, but in our lives, as well.

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Who knew that the main theme of Your Money Or Your Life (having enough) has its roots in an old Jewish Passover song?

Thank you to Rabbi Rosenbaum for allowing me to publish his sermon. Happy Passover, Happy Easter, Happy Spring, no matter what you celebrate!

Last-Minute Frugal Date Night Ideas

Items from a frugal date night As if she was reading my mind, Foundry follower Sally Ashley asked if she could do a guest post on Frugal Date Nights. Just in time for Valentine’s Day! When she’s not reading this blog, Sally writes about romance and personal finance. Her most recent work focuses on how to pick the best finance schools.

So if you don’t have anything planned for your sweetie tonight, and you want to keep it frugal, read on…

How to Plan a Frugal Date Night
Planning a date doesn’t always have to be expensive, and you can have just as much fun on a frugal date as you can on an expensive date. Below are some great ways you can plan a frugal date night and still have a great time!

Hangout at Home
You can plan a fun but cheap date night in your very own home. You probably have food there, so look up some recipes online and cook a great meal for you and your date. More than likely, you have some good entertainment in your home as well. A stereo, television, computer, video game system or just some good old-fashioned board games can be fun on a date. Simply invite your date over to hangout and listen to music, watch a movie and share a meal, or play some fun games.

Attending Local Events
Most every city has local newspapers that list local events and happenings that will be going on in the next few weeks. Some cities have their own websites that list these events. Look in those papers or Internet sites, and search for some local events that you and your date can attend. When you see something that looks fun, and go out and have some fun. Most of the time, these events are relatively cheap or even free.

Visit the Park
A romantic AND cheap date that can be a lot of fun is going to the park. If you or your date has a dog, take your pet along. You can pack a nice picnic lunch and a blanket and sit under the trees and enjoy good conversation while eating lunch. Some parks host events and activities as well. They might have a swimming pool, walking/jogging trails or some secluded areas to get some privacy. If it’s winter, there might be somewhere to go ice skating.

Cheap Movie 
Going out to the movies on a date is ridiculously expensive, and more often than not, boring. Staring at a screen and being silent for over two hours can make it tough to get back into the vibe after the movie is over. However, if there is a movie you both want to see and it is available by rental, check it out and watch it at home. You can pop your own popcorn, have your own drinks and sit down and share a movie together. Every now and again, you can stop the movie to enjoy some conversation or refresh your beverages. If you know your date pretty well, take advantage of the cheaper movie specials during the daytime, or visit the dollar movie to catch a really cheap one. [ed: Even cheaper, borrow a movie from the library for free!]

Cheap Coffee Dates

Meeting up for coffee can be a good idea if you know your date pretty well. If so, you can engage in good conversation the entire time you are there. If you do not know your date well, a coffee shop can be intimidating – trying to find something to say for a couple of hours. If you have a nice coffee maker or cappuccino machine at home, ask your date over for some homebrew, and make your own coffee at home while enjoying conversation, a meal or just watching television together. First dates at a coffee shop are easier if you go on a double-date to help break the ice. Afterwards, you can go to a cozier place alone if things go as planned.

Hopefully, you can use some of these frugal date ideas for yourself. They are easy on the wallet, and they will allow you the opportunity to get to know your date better. You can learn a lot about a person by using one of these cheap date ideas over the more expensive options.
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Thanks, Sally! Readers, how are you spending your Valentine’s Day (frugally or otherwise)? In our family, we exchange hand-made cards for each other, and Mrs Foundry usually bakes a treat for the family. This year I splurged and got her a bouquet of her favorite flowers (even though we agreed on no gifts). Oops!

Save Bling with Ting

tingEven a well-oiled machine like the Foundry’s finances need some tuning every once in a while.

One big offender in our budget was the mobile phone plan. We were paying $150 a month for 2 phones with data plans. I knew we could do better. Pre-paid plans look cheaper on paper, but I didn’t want the hassle of recharging minutes (or worse, forgetting to recharge and finding my phone out of service).

Ting to the rescue! They run on the Sprint network (so you can bring your Sprint phone over), and use a tiered plan. At the end of every month you only pay for what you used, in terms of minutes, text messages, and megabytes of data. For instance: less than 100 minutes is $3, 100 – 500 minutes is $6, and so on.

You can see the dashboard in the image above (that was my usage for last month), but they also have alerts you can set up. “You’re about to go into the next level of text messages,” for instance.

Here’s the best part: without changing my phone habits much, my phone plan went from $75 (my half of the family plan) to $25! I use Google Voice for long calls (or when I know I’m going to be on hold) and for outgoing text messages. And I’m almost always near a wi-fi signal.

I highly recommend taking a look at Ting to see how much money they’ll save you. Especially if you already have a Sprint phone, since your existing phone will work.

Here’s a promotion code for $25 off: https://z2qhtq7rd1.ting.com/

NB: The links on this post are referral links, that get each of us $25 off. Please click on them! It’s a nice and fully optional way to help out this blog if you choose to do so.

What do you think of this new tagline?

oxygenNot that it makes a huge difference in the whole scheme of things, but I put a new tagline up at the top of my blog. Here’s why…

I figured that there are a thousand frugal blogs out there (even though this was the only “frugalism” blog), so I needed something more unique and inspiring. The new tagline is:

Work to earn. Earn to save. Save to invest. Stop working.

It was inspired by this awesome article on what “retirement” means in this day and age. The full context is:

I demonstrated a very typical Generation X attitude to finance. Rather than thinking of it as having a pension plan, getting vested, putting in my time, and making monthly installments on my defined contribution plan, I looked at the “rules” of the game. How does the money system work? Should I work to earn and earn to consume? Or should I work to earn and earn to save and save to invest so I can stop working?

I broke it into four sections that are really the four main topics of Foundry in the Forest

  1. Work to earn means Maximizing Income. Reading your average frugal blog has a diminishing return on your time, since there’s a limit to how little you can spend (Jacob, the guy who wrote the above article, seems to have found that limit, $7k a year per person). On the other hand, there’s no limit to how much you can earn. That’s why I recommend most people focus their efforts on maximizing income. Once you’re past 6 figures, you’re probably good in this department.
  2. Earn to save means Minimizing Spending. Figure out how much is enough and don’t spend a penny more. If you increased the frequency of your breathing, you could gulp up so much more oxygen. But you don’t because you have all the oxygen you need.
  3. Save to invest means Educating yourself about Investing. I wrote a series of posts on this topic that will help start your investing education. But never stop learning!
  4. Stop working means Becoming Financially Independent, and no longer requiring paid employment. That part should be self-explanatory. But maybe not, since smart people are still re-working the definition of “retirement” these days.

So that’s the new tagline. What do you think?

Borax + Baking Soda win again: how to make homemade scouring powder

japanese bathIs there anything that Borax and baking soda, once combined, can’t clean up? Actually, don’t answer that.

You all know the childhood song: Comet, it makes your teeth turn green. Comet, it tastes like gasoline. That song was written because Comet is nasty and it doesn’t belong touching the stuff you touch with your naked body, like your bathtub*.

It was time to clean the Foundry bathtub and I had to think fast. Truthfully, I had plenty of time. I’m just trying to build up suspense for this blog post.

I found this recipe for “scouring powder” (the generic name for Comet) and noticed it contained my two favorite household cleaning ingredients: borax and baking soda. So I gave it a try, and it works great!

The recipe is: equal parts borax, baking soda, and salt.

So here’s the updated, ever-expanding list of commercial household products I’ve replaced with diy recipes:

Anyone else have any other household products that they make themselves? Even if it doesn’t use borax or baking soda.

* There’s a product called Bon Ami that’s a lot less caustic. So if you must buy a commercial scouring powder, buy that one. But if you’re into that kind of stuff, why did you read this post?

Lifetime Gym Membership: $10.99. Not being able to make excuses any more: Priceless.

you are your own gymAs much as I love running and cycling, I’ve never really been a gym kind of guy. It’s not just the crazy prices, but also simply getting to the gym, and the sweaty equipment, and the lukewarm showers, etc. I bought some dumbbells a few years ago to do arm workouts at home, but they mostly sit unused under the couch.

Recently, I heard about a workout program called You Are Your Own Gym, that uses “bodyweights” (pushups, situps, etc.) and common household objects to give you a workout. I checked out the book from the library and loved it so much, I bought the book!

Yes folks you read that right, I actually bought myself a book! I can’t remember the last time I did that. The way I see it, I spent $10.99 for a lifetime gym membership, since I don’t ever see myself needing to step foot in one again.

What I like about the exercise program is that it requires creativity. No chin-up bar? Use a door. Instead of dumbbells, bicep curls are done with a towel wrapped around your foot (pulling up, against the weight of your leg, provides the resistance).

And the part of this book that I LOVE has nothing to do with exercise at all. It’s about getting rid of your excuses. The author asks you to list all your excuses for not exercising, so you can see them for what they are. After doing that, I’m very motivated and have only missed a single session since I started. The same technique could be applied to breaking through the mental barriers preventing you from making any positive change in your life!

I’ve been doing it for about 2 months and the differences in my strength and physique are noticeable. Who wouldn’t like to be a little stronger and sexier? Check it out (literally, at the library) if you’re interested in starting a workout routine but you don’t like the gym.

Food Stamp Challenge: Thankful Wrap-up

The Food Stamp Challenge ended Sunday afternoon. We broke the bank by just $2, as you can see by the image to the right, which is close enough to the goal that I consider it a success. If you’re interested, you can also look at the full spreadsheet with lists of what we bought and (much of) what we ate.

The week went by pretty much like a normal week. Venessa might tell you otherwise, since the work of planning and purchasing just the right amount of food fell mostly on her shoulders. I’m very thankful that she’s so willing to go along with my crazy challenges! The biggest change was not going out to lunch with my co-workers, which I usually do a couple times a week.

From looking at the shopping list, the secret to keeping food costs down is obvious: buy individual ingredients, instead of ready-to-eat meals and convenience foods. With the exception of “hamburger buns,” almost everything else on the list is either a food item in its most basic form, or a food home-made prior to the start of the challenge*. Given enough time (and my awesome bread machine) I could have made the buns too. Time is really what is needed to turn ingredients into food. I’m thankful that Venessa and I each work sane schedules so we have time for cooking nutritious meals, and being with the rest of the family.

I was talking about the challenge with a friend, mentioning how I aimed to show that living on a very limited food budget doesn’t mean that one needs to make compromises. She mentioned that simply having the money and mentality to make healthy food choices isn’t sufficient for everyone, since some folks live in a food desert. I’m lucky to live walking-distance from an adequate supermarket and work walking-distance from two very good ones, so it didn’t occur to me that not everyone has that luxury. This is yet another thing to be thankful for.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m dropping a lot of thankful bombs, which can only mean one thing: Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Eat yummy food but don’t overdo it. Remember those who are overworked, not able to get to grocery stores, and getting by on Food Stamps.

* If I really wanted to be tough on myself, I’d also add “wine” and the various dairy products to the list of ready-made food items, since they can both be made at home from basic ingredients.

Ode to Bicycling

Just your average Seattle springtime bike ride

I mentioned riding my bike to the library in a previous post, so let’s talk a bit more about how awesome cycling is.

Second to meeting my wife Venessa, choosing to commute by bike is the one factor that contributes most to my quality of life, on a physical, emotional, and financial level. My bike is my preferred mode of transportation, a source of recreation, and a cheaper, more enjoyable alternative to a gym membership. I preach the awesomeness of bike commuting to anyone who will listen, and have helped a few people get started. Here are the tips I gave them:

Step 1: Decide if bike commuting is for you

The rewards of bike commuting are plentiful:

  • I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been
  • I get to the office feeling invigorated, my brain is alert and ready to work
  • I get the feeling of accomplishment from conquering hills and routes that were previously too challenging
  • It’s good for the environment
  • Depending on your commute, it’s quicker (15 minutes on bike vs 40 minutes on bus, for me)
  • It’s arguably cheaper than a bus pass and definitely cheaper than a car ride
  • Chatting with other cyclists along the way

There are also some not-so-great things:

  • Safety concerns
  • Riding in the rain 9 months out of the year
  • Worrying about your bike getting stolen, where to put it when you’re at work, what the policies in your office are
  • Getting to work sweaty. Does your office have a shower? If not, how will your coworkers feel about your odor?
  • Your pants won’t fit because your waistline will shrink and your leg muscles will grow
  • No time to read/listen to music (or whatever you enjoy doing on the bus)

Step 2: Pick a bike

Until you’ve been on a few different bikes, you won’t know what type of bike suits you best. If you have cyclist friends about your size, ask them if you can try out their bikes. Otherwise look at craigslist listings for bikes, and give some a spin. For a more humorous look at choosing a ride, see the “Equipment” section on this helpful Bike Snob NYC post

I was very happy with my touring-style bike as a commuting bike. It didn’t have as aggressive a position as a road bike, so it’ll never be the fastest. But it was designed to carry cargo, and it had small gears for getting up hills. I ended up swapping it for a cyclocross bike since it’s easier to commute on a ‘cross bike than it is to race ‘cross on a commuter bike.

My recommendation is to buy a bike with drop handlebars and STI shifters, that can one day accommodate fenders and/or a rack. Other than that, just get the nicest used bike in your price range.

A note on bike sizing: there’s no standard for bike size numbers. Each company measures a different part of the bike to determine the size. You can google for sizing guides with charts but there’s no substitute for getting on a bike and seeing how it fits your body.

Step 3: Bike gear

Some people go crazy with this stuff, but you don’t need that much. What you do need depends on what type of riding you do.

Here’s a list of the essentials, that can all be had for under $50 total:

  • Helmet
  • Floor pump (the #1 way to reduce flats is checking tire pressure every few rides)
  • Little bag (e.g. that goes under the saddle, between two bars of the frame, or in your big bag)
  • Repair kit that fits in little bag: spare tube, patches, a small pump, 2 little tire levers, a small multi-tool
  • Yep, that’s it.¹

You should get a lock if your workplace doesn’t offer bike storage in the building. But before caving in and locking up outside, I’d put up a fight on this point. Mention how much more productive an employee you’ll be knowing that your bike is safe through the day. Some cities have a program, like Bikestation, where you can lock your bike indoors for a yearly fee. An oft-overlooked defense against having your bike stolen is to not have a valuable-looking bike!

Step 4: Route selection

This one’s more of an art than a science. Get a bike map for the area you live in, and plot a route. Remember that the shortest path isn’t always the easiest. It took me a while to stop thinking like a driver. Go around hills. Follow other cyclists to see what they’re doing (when they merge, roads they avoid, etc) or ask them when stopped at red lights. I’ve found that cyclists are very friendly to each other and love to help out. Sometimes a busy road with a bike lane is actually less safe than a side road without bike facilities.

Steps Five through infinity: Ride safe

This is the most difficult one to write about because it literally is a matter of life and death. The first few times I rode through downtown, I got that panic warning from deep in my reptile brain. Same thing I used to get as a child when we had to swim at summer camp (I had a terrible fear of water).

I’m going to keep this simple and only offer one tip because it’s the most important safety thing I’ve learned, but it’s somewhat counterintuitive to a beginning rider: be a predictable part of the flow of traffic

The tendency for a new rider is to timidly hug the right edge of the road, always yield to cars even if you have the right of way, or ride on the sidewalk. Counterintuitively, none of these practices make you or the people around you safer!

You have the same rights and responsibilities as a car so the more you ride like a car, the safer you’ll be. The only legal difference between you and a car is that a cyclist is obligated to ride “as far to the right as safe”. Other than that, you’re just a very slow and slender car.²

For example, when you’re riding on a street with parallel parking, “as far to the right as safe” means “far enough away from parked cars that when a car door opens, it won’t hit you,” even if that means riding in the middle of the lane. Cyclists call this “claiming the lane” and it’s the most counterintuitive of all the safety rules.

“Share the road” goes both ways. So when cars are around don’t be a jerk and run lights, ride excessively in the passing lane, etc.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask. I’d love to convert one of you into a bike commuter!

¹ You can add more gear later after you figure out what type of riding you do most. If you plan on riding…

  • in the dark, add: bright/reflective clothing, front and rear lights
  • in the rain, add: front and rear fenders, and optionally pack a poncho
  • longer distances, add: water bottle and water bottle cage, bike shorts or bike underwear (padded undies that turn any shorts into bike shorts)
  • while hauling lots of stuff, add: rear rack, paniers (bike bags)

² Your local laws may vary.